Analysing the Sonia effect

Print edition : March 21, 1998

"WE have not done as well as we expected." Congress Working Committee (CWC) member A.K. Antony did not mince words while commenting on his party's performance in the Lok Sabha elections. That this admission came from Antony was all the more significant because the former Kerala Chief Minister, unlike his overoptimistic colleagues in the CWC such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, did not believe that the Congress(I) would sweep the polls on the strength of Sonia Gandhi's campaigning. Antony's expectations were moderate and he had made this clear repeatedly during the run-up. He had only hoped that Sonia Gandhi's campaign would help the Congress(I) emerge as the single largest party with between 155 and 165 seats, an improvement of 15 to 25 seats over its tally in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections.

However, the Sonia effect did not help the party achieve even this modest target. The party's strength in the Lok Sabha has remained at 140, which was its strength in May 1996 when the 11th Lok Sabha was convened. (When the Lok Sabha was dissolved in December 1997, the party had 143 seats: MPs belonging to the All India Indira Congress (Tiwari) and Madhavrao Scindia's Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress rejoined the party after fighting the 1996 elections separately.)

The only consolation for the Congress(I) is that it has the support of 166 members in the House now, as compared to the support of 146 members in the last Lok Sabha, including two members of the Muslim League and the lone member of the Kerala Congress(Mani). This increase is not on account of a better performance by the Congress(I), but because of its new-found allies such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), which won 17, four and one seats respectively.

The Congress(I) leadership is also concerned about the fall in the party's share of the popular vote at the national level. Initial estimates showed that the party's vote share fell by about four percentage points, from 29.7 per cent to 25.72 per cent. This has generated a debate within the party as to what exactly has been the effect of Sonia Gandhi's campaign on the party's fortunes. While a section of party MPs and middle-level leaders owing allegiance to Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri and Maharashtra leader Sharad Pawar say that Sonia Gandhi's campaign has had only a marginal impact, in terms of galvanising the rank and file, Rajiv-Sonia loyalists led by CWC member Arjun Singh claim that the party's tally would have been lower, by about 30 or 40 seats, if Sonia Gandhi had not campaigned.

One interesting point highlighted in this debate is that the party won in only 49 of the 138 constituencies where Sonia Gandhi campaigned during her 34-day tour. In some cases her campaign did not help the Congress(I) even retain the seats it held earlier. The results also showed that the strategy behind Sonia Gandhi's campaign had failed. Her campaign was intended to help the party retain the seats it won in 1996 and make gains where it had lost by narrow margins. Sonia Gandhi addressed meetings in 58 constituencies where the Congress(I) won in 1996, and 52 others where the party finished second. While the party did win in some constituencies where it had finished second in 1996, Sonia Gandhi's campaign was not evenly successful.

Significantly, the Congress(I) suffered its worst defeat in Uttar Pradesh, where Sonia Gandhi addressed the largest number of meetings - 17. Here, the party lost even the five seats it won in 1996. The Congress(I) gained in varying degrees in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana and Kerala, while it retained its strength of 22 seats in Andhra Pradesh. The party gained the most in Maharashtra and Rajasthan; its tally went up from 15 to 33 seats in Maharashtra, and from 12 to 18 seats in Rajasthan. The party improved its strength from eight to 10 seats in Madhya Pradesh and from two to five in Bihar. The Congress(I)'s strength rose from five to nine in Karnataka and from seven to eight in Kerala. In Haryana too the party increased its tally of seats from two to three.

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